The New Testament has lots of military words and phrases, although they aren’t obvious in most English translations. Thinking about that fact, I started meditating on the way most of us think about “wilderness experiences.” Negative, bad, depressing, to-be-avoided, painful, stressful, faith-stealing, etc., etc.
Soldiers go through weeks and months of necessary training, some of it in wilderness areas. Like it or not, we’re soldiers ourselves.
What is a wilderness? Webster’s dictionary defines it primarily as a place that is uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. Not that it is suitable for cultivation or habitation and no-one chose to do it — wilderness is a region that is not really suitable for cultivating crops or building cities and towns. The New Testament Greek word for wilderness means “solitude,” and is used in a variety of applications. I like that.
What is missing in a wilderness? Distractions. Normal food and shelter, companionship, duties and responsibilities. Ordinary occupations and opportunities.
What is present? Raw materials. Rocks and boulders, dust and grit, scrub brush, scorpions and snakes, blazing sun, deep shadows. Solitude. Challenges. Ingenuity. Inventiveness. Extraordinary occupations and opportunities.
For their lack of faith, the children of Israel had to wander around in a wilderness for forty years. Why not make them wander around in civilized territory? They could have pitched their tents on the shores of the Jordan, shopped at the local village markets and traded with other travelers. Forty years would have still gone by, the old folks would still die off, and by then they would have learned their lesson, right? Apparently not.
Jesus grew up in a civilized world, albeit under Roman occupation. He along with many others went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. He received the Holy Spirit, was identified and commended by God, and thus was prepared to preach… or was he?
Matthew 4:1 says, “Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (tested) by the devil.” He was there 40 days and 40 nights, fasting that entire time. He was removed from the daily distractions of carpentry, customers, brothers and sisters and neighbors, even the normal synagogue attendance as an adult Jewish man.
There were no disciples yet. No shops or stores in the wilderness, no bread bakeries. No tents or blankets or extra garments. He had to fashion whatever shelter he needed from whatever materials were available. Mark tells us that wild beasts were there too. Scavengers and hunters, they may have thought Jesus would make a nice snack.
And of course the enemy was there, in whatever form he was using at the time. Only after the devil did his best or worst to detour Jesus from his called path, did the angels come to minister to Jesus. Perhaps they brought him some breakfast, who knows.
What exactly happened in the wilderness? We’re only told about the end of that time, after Jesus had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and was hungry. A great deal must have happened before that, however. Training. Preparation.
Luke tells us in 4:14, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee; and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.” Jesus was already well known in Galilee, but this time something was different. He was different.
Our trouble with wilderness may arise from the fact that we don’t see it as a training ground, a time and place of solitude where our spiritual ears can be tuned up, our thinking and meditating processes exercised, and our faith can grow strong and muscular.
Wilderness and solitude without the distractions of other voices means you have to discern between the voice of your own needs and wants, the voice of the tempter, and the voice of the Holy Spirit. You have to hone your decision-making ability, your ability to choose the right voice to believe and obey. If you’re in the wilderness and a voice tells you a hungry mountain lion is just over that hill, don’t go that way, you’d better know for sure whose voice is speaking.
Jesus said many times that he only did what he saw the Father do or tell him to do. This 40 days in the wilderness surely wasn’t an exception.
High house payments, sky-rocketing cost of gasoline, economic turn-downs and job layoffs, family squabbles, health problems — all of those things can be devastating distractions to hearing and obeying the voice of the Lord. But they themselves are not the wilderness.
I think our attitude toward wilderness needs an adjustment. Sometimes we need a day apart down at a local park or camped out in our bedroom, alone with our Bible and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we need a bit of voluntary wilderness to restore our spiritual perspective, learn how to discern between confusing voices, exercise and strengthen our faith.
(Reprinted from May 2008)